•Why we must retain units in cargo clearing process — Customs
By Godfrey Bivbere
CONTROVERSY is currently trailing the number of units maintained by officials of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, at the seaports with stakeholders putting the number at about 27 while Customs said that it has only seven or eight very essential units.
This is even as stakeholders have accused Customs officers in the various units of exploiting shippers for personal gains.
However, Customs has stressed that the units are essential in curbing efforts by importers and their agents to short-change government of accruable revenue thro ugh under declaration and concealment.
Speaking at an online event put togather by Harboursandport.com, former National President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, Eugene Nweke, said the number of units at each Customs Port Command is about 27.
Some of the units mentioned by Nweke includes, Documentation Level which has Form M unit and Pre-Arrival Assessment Report, PAAR Processing unit; For Document Lodgement and Capturing Level, there is Unblocking unit and abandoned unit while under Physical Examination Level there are SGD Rerouting unit (where the portal selects the SGD for scanning operations), Examination/report unit (generating Inspection Act) and Deputy Comptroller, DC Report unit.
He said there is also Cargo Releasing Processes under which are Releasing unit, DC Stamping unit, Valuation unit, Customs Processing Center, CPC Q & A unit, APM unit, DC Admin unit, DC Compliance unit and Customs Area Controller, CAC monitoring unit.
He also listed Under Cargo Delivery Level One (Inside the por) which includes Gate/Exiting unit, Customs Intelligence Unit, CIU unit, Enforcement unit, Officers-in-charge, OC gate unit, Gate officers unit, Clearance unit and Post Clearance Audit (PCA) unit.
He said there is the Cargo Delivery Level Two (outside the port) which includes Comptroller General of Customs, CGC strike force, CGC compliance team, Customs police, Federal Operations Unit, FOU roving van and FOU SWAT.
Another source in the industry put the number of units at 21 and listed them as follows: Form M unit, PAAR unit, Unblocking unit, abandoned unit, Examination/report unit, DC Report unit as well as Releasing unit.
Others are DC Stamping unit, Gate/Exiting unit, Valuation unit, CPC Q and A unit, APM unit, DC Admin unit, DC Compliance unit, CAC monitoring unit, CIU unit, Enforcement unit, OC gate unit, Gate officers unit, Clearance unit, and Post Clearance Audit (PCA) unit.
Similarly, Tin-can Chairman of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents, NCMDLCA, Ari Ayuba, also contributing at the Harboursandport.com event, frowned at duplication of assignments by Customs with multiple desks doing same jobs, which he said has been the bane in trade facilitation at the ports.
Ayuba said there is need to critically define the functions of these Customs units: “CIU, Enforcement unit, Customs Police, Strike Force, CG Squad, Residence, Monitoring/Compliance unit, Exit Gate, Controller’s team, Federal operations etc.”
Speaking on the issue, Managing Director of Kammany Marine Services Limited, Charles Okorefe, said the situation is not different at Onne port, not even if you decide to pay the right duty.
In his words, “Go to Onne Port for example. If you like, pay more than the normal Customs duty your PAAR requires for your import, you will still be made to follow the “standard” on ground there, if you know what I mean.
“In fact, they will be looking at you like a JJC (new entrant) for doing the right thing. So, are they not encouraging importers to cut corners out of which they benefit handsomely? Ask any agent operating at Onne.”
Amid the outcry over multiply check units at the various Customs Command, Customs Area Controller, CAC of Apapa Area 1 Command of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, Yusuf Malanta, has said that there are only eight of such unit as listed by Ari Ayuba.
Malanta explained that the units are necessary to control attempts by importers and their agents to short change government of accruable revenue through under declaration and concealment.
The Apapa Customs boss said that number of under declaration and complete concealment is on the increase with so many unqualified persons getting into the clearing business.
In his contribution also former National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Ernest Elochukwu, also commenting at the Harboursandport.com event, said “A simplistic but plausible argument that fraudulent and noncompliant declarations prompt multiple checks and possible extortions can easily fly but that’s surely an exercise in rigmarole.
“The problem is both systemic as it is endemic. To start with, the fiscal policies of the government create a foundation for inconsistencies. For instance, when a government policy bans importation of essential items that do not have available local substitutes, smuggling in various shades is being unwittingly encouraged.
“And when such a policy as the one surreptitiously put in place by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, through its famous 41-items, correct declarations become rare as the 41items list cover quite a range.
“Then add the Revenue Targets both to the Service by the government and from the Customs headquarters to various commands which are constantly reviewed upwards not minding the cargo volume, you can now appreciate a system on overdrive. In such a system, anything is possible.
“It will therefore do us little good peddling the blame game because everything is not as straightforward as it is in those other climes we usually refer to.
“In the circumstance, we now have officers both senior and junior who go to any length to get “good” postings at all times. Of course, for these officers all that matters is what they are making for themselves.
“Yes, the NCS is reforming no doubt, but we are still far behind from where we ought to be.”
National Coordinator of NAGAFF, 100 per cent Compliance Team, Ibrahim Tanko, has alleged that some officials of Customs, let go several contraband consignments for every one they intercept.
Tanko noted that in such situations the officers involved get commendation for intercepting the ones they did.
He, however, explained that most of the infractions are caused by importers and their agents who continue to cut corners, stressing that if Customs decides to do its duty the way they are supposed to, most consignments will be impounded.
He said, “It’s been one year and three months that we have been campaigning to our members for them to do the right thing. I know what I am going through.
Just to tell somebody to do the right thing is a problem; and that is our own members, not to talk of Customs.
“If Customs wants to do the right thing, I am telling you, no container will go out of the port. But, we end up pleading because we know our members are not doing the right thing.”
Deputy National Public Relations Officer of NCS, Timi Bomode, said, “Customs operations within the port is the most robust of all the agencies in that environment. What are the activities of Customs as currently defined by the existing Standard Operating Procedures, SOP.
“Two zones exist; one for the trader/agent, the other, for Customs. The Customs procedure will not begin until that of the trader/importer ends. Migrating to the trader zone is predicated on fulfilling all criteria as required for the clearance of particular goods culminating in self assessment and payments.
“Even the beginning of processes in the Customs zones is fully automated, as only two procedures are triggered. The first is risk profiling and assignment of examination type based on associated criteria for that declaration, the other is assigning the examination officer for that particular job.
“Both of these procedures are executed simultaneously and take only a few seconds. Whatever examination mode is selected by the system is referenced to the terminal operator who takes responsibility for the safe keeping and handling of cargo within the port.
“It is they who will either take containers to be scanned or position for physical examination. Usually, this singular activity takes days to execute. However, until the terminal operators position containers for examination, the Customs can do nothing even though the declaration is now officially in the Customs zone.
“Physical examination presents other challenges. Either the terminal operators lack adequate equipments or the labourers are reluctant to do their jobs. All agencies mandated to participate in physical examination of cargo have their respective roles to play especially in the area of certifications and compliance.
“Any of them, if not satisfied could cause a pause in the process. On the side of Customs, if proven that physical examination matches declaration, the goods are released immediately in the system.
“Again, notification of release is sent automatically to both the shipping company and the terminal operator, whose duty it will then be to allow delivery of the goods. It is necessary to highlight here that time release studies have shown the Customs automated processes to be the shortest in all these activities where there are no infractions.
“It will also do this platform a lot of good if some of the investigators in our midst find out how long it takes to position containers for examination and the actual delivery itself.
”At the gate the process is also automated. However, because most of our ports are multi-user ports we cannot totally automate actual physical exit. Other concessionaires have as much a right as anyone else the use of the gate. So separating the wheat from the chaff still requires physical interventions.
In all of these, where do the multiple checkpoints fit in?
The Public Relations Officer of Tin-can Island Command of NCS, Uche Ejesieme, said “In fact whether we like it or not, all players in the trade value chain have a responsibility to ensure sincerity of purpose.
“I just did a system profiling this evening and discovered that over 90 per cent of the declarations were on 5 per cent even when it is clear that finished products are 20 per cent.
“We have five tariff bands that are zero per cent for essentials, fice per cent for raw materials,10 per cent for semi finished products, 20 per cent for finished products and 35 per cent for luxury goods. But if you go to the system you will discover that most items are declared on either zero per cent or five per cent even for very clear cases.
“And so the service is grappling with issues of false declaration, under declaration, transfer of value, concealment and other vices. And so if we must begin a revolution on this, it has to begin with reviving the National Orientation Agency, NOA to work on the psyche of Nigerians to first understand the meaning of patriotism and then for the maritime sector we need to sensitize importers and their collaborators . It is only natural that sometimes you see a willing accomplice within the rank and file.
“Further to this, I also fault your comment on compliance trade whereby you insinuated that such declarants are being frustrated. For your information we have different avenues like the Dispute Resolution Center, DRC, help desk and even the office of the CAC where such frustrating delays can be reported and action will be taken accordingly.
“You may not be aware that the office of the CAC has been demystified to the extent that its easily accessible for trade related issues,” he noted.
Nweke stressed that it is wrong to generalise that all Customs officers are bad.
In his words, “officers and men of Nigeria Customs Service are Nigerians and cannot be detached from whatever ills leadership has infested on us. As such in any organization, not all are bad eggs, there many that are very good not minding the profound activities of the bad eggs within. The idea here is to avoid a possible resort to generalize.”
Former Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, Mfon Usoro, on her part recommended “removal of discretion on the part of the officers, creation of a common checklist, entries fully automated and proof respected on sight by all enforcers.”